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Solar Roadways: Crackpot Idea or Ingenious Concept?

solar-roadways

Scott Brusaw wants you to drive on a solar panel super highway.

Scott and Julie Brusaw have a way of solving the energy crisis, it just involves you driving on glass. The Brusaws are the founders of Solar Roadways, an Idaho based startup looking to reinvent the US highway system by replacing asphalt roads with solar cells. Using photo-voltaic technology available today, Scott Brusaw calculates that a single mile of highway, if converted to solar cells, would provide enough power to run 428 homes in the US. And that’s on just four hours of sunlight a day. Solar Roadways has garnered the attention of think tanks, documentary film makers, and politicians. They even took home a grant from the Department of Transportation and created a prototype panel (12′ x 12′) that also functions as an intelligent roadway with sensors and dynamic lighting. The Solar Roadways project is remarkable for its vision, but there are many questions about costs, administration, and driving on glass surfaces that have yet to be answered. Check out videos of the prototype panel below and judge for yourself about whether solar panel roads are the ticket to living on easy street, or a just another highway to hell.


A desire for energy independence, worries about ‘peak oil‘, and environmental concerns have pushed the US towards exploring alternative energy concepts. We’ve seen all sorts of different ‘solutions’ to the energy crisis from flying saucer dirigibles to algae-fueled cars. The Solar Roadways project is interesting because Brusaw sees it as solving so many different problems all in the same structure. It will be an intelligent roadway (digital lights, dynamic displays, etc), it will collect solar energy, it will serve as the distribution of energy (power cables are embedded in the sides of the road), it will ease the way we recharge electric cars, it will generate energy without releasing carbon dioxide (ignoring carbon created during production and maintenance), and it will use processed garbage as its base layer to ease the stress on landfills. That’s a lot to pin on a single idea. Brusaw showcases the intelligent highway aspect of the Solar Roadway, and discusses other ideas, in the following clip from the documentary film Your Environmental Road Trip (YERT).

So are the Brusaw’s crazy, or is this a feasible idea? When it comes to projects like this, it’s all about the numbers. Sure, we could pave the streets with solar panels, but we could also pave them with gold. The question is, is the Solar Roadways concept worth it? Well, Scott Brusaw has a whole section on their website dealing with those numbers. If you’re interested in this project I greatly urge you to read that webpage (along with the FAQ) because it covers the idea in a detail I don’t have time for here. Instead, I have to summarize:

Commercial solar panels are available at 18.5% efficiency, if we replaced all the highways in the lower 48 states with solar panels of the same surface area then we’d get about 14 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. That’s roughly three times what the US uses each year, and about equal to what the world consumes each year. The cost? Brusaw is aiming for each road 12′ by 12′ panel to cost around $10,000 and for the average lifespan of the panel to be about 20 years. There is roughly 29,000 square miles (~800 billion square feet) of road surface to cover. We need roughly 5.6 billion panels to cover that area. That’s a price tag of $56 trillion! Brusaw points out, however, that at current retail electricity prices the road would pay for itself in about 22 years. Quicker if we used panels with greater efficiency.

He also says that asphalt roads aren’t that much cheaper. He supposes that an asphalt road costs about $16 per square foot and lasts for 7 years. If the solar panel road lasts for 20 years, it would be about the same cost per year.

He’s not quite right about that. First, $16 per square foot is about right for highway strength asphalt roads. Your average residential roadway is much closer to $2-3 per square foot, however. Also, many roads (highways or otherwise) aren’t replaced every 7 years, but rather every 10 to 20. In any case, even if we accept Brusaw’s numbers ($16 per square foot, 7 years versus $10,000 for 144 square feet every 20 years) the solar cell road is still about 50% more expensive ($3.47 per square foot -year versus $2.29 per square foot-year). Now, if petroleum prices continue to rise then maybe asphalt roads will be as expensive as $10k solar panels…but right now that’s simply not the case.

Still, a little hand waving in the cost of asphalt hasn’t lessened the exposure the Solar Roadways concept has received. Consulting firm Booz-Allen has brought the concept to Washington. Online media has covered the story extensively. Solar Roadways was a finalist in the Annual Creativity in Electronics Award (ACE). It’s a prominent feature in the YERT documentary, and Scott recently spoke at the TEDxSacramento conference. Here’s another video from YERT (much the same as the one above but with different editing) and two that cover the TEDx presentation. In these clips Brusaw reveals more of his philosophical and emotional stakes in the concept.

Unfortunately, nothing in the videos above, or the Solar Roadways website leads me to believe that they’ve generated significant amounts of electricity with the panel yet. That’s a major concern, I think. Along with a prototype that generates electricity in large quantities, I would also like to hear Brusaw, or anyone, explain how the roadway would store electrical energy. Solar power is not steady, even during the day, and there would have to be some major infrastructure to translate a solar road into a continuous source of electricity.

I’m also concerned with how much this project depends on the undeveloped technology of the glass surface. We haven’t seen a single panel of this magic substance which will be able to handle all the requirements that Brusaw has laid out for it. Nor have we really seen any numbers on what that substance will actually cost. And how will it stay clean? The Solar Roadways FAQ proposes that the roadway could use self-cleaning glass, or that we could simply clean it with a street sweeper. I sense some more hand-waving here.

But maybe we’ll have clearer answers to these concerns in the years ahead. Solar Roadways seems bent on raising funds and developing future prototypes. You can vote for their concept in the GE Ecomagination competition where $200 million in funding (in total) is at stake, and you can personally donate to the cause through their website. Hopefully additional funds would allow Solar Roadways to build a prototype that actually generates usable amounts of electricity and stores it for later use.

Until they do produce such a prototype, I’m not sure I’ll believe in the Solar Roadways concept. It’s definitely a cool idea, and the Brusaws have put some very interesting thought into it, but there’s just too many important questions that have yet to be fully answered. I don’t think it’s a crackpot idea, I just doubt it’s feasibility. But who knows. Maybe the glass technology will appear soon, the storage technology will be developed, and the costs will prove to be reasonable. If that does happen, believe me, I’ll be one of the first to endorse and drive on a solar panel road.

[screen capture: YERT/Solar Roadways]

[source: Solar Roadways]

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38 comments

  • BillK says:

    No need to set up a huge project to repave the highways. Start a smaller project to repave house driveways first. If that works, states and towns will be fighting to pave their roads.

    • Phoenix Woman says:

      That’s what DOT is urging them to do: Start with the parking lots of big-box stores or fast-food places, and provide handy power plug-in facilities for people with electric or hybrid cars; the plug-in facilities would be incentive for electric-vehicle owners to shop at places that have the plug-ins.

      DOT has encouraged them to apply for a $750,000 grant so they can get started.

      Another thing: If they or someone else solves the glass problem, whoever does so becomes filthy rich as the uses for such glass would go far beyond solar road panels.

  • BillK says:

    No need to set up a huge project to repave the highways. Start a smaller project to repave house driveways first. If that works, states and towns will be fighting to pave their roads.

  • Gerben says:

    I still like the concept they are using today with solarpannels over parking-lots more, but If this technology could eventually evolve inside the concept of electric-cars being energized just by riding or standing on the road itself, this will be a possible future. and BillK is right, this will probably be adopted much faster by private homes and businesses, before the government takes any real interest. (I also think the glass should be nanocoated, what still increases the price per mile currently) just my 2 cents.

  • Gerben says:

    I still like the concept they are using today with solarpannels over parking-lots more, but If this technology could eventually evolve inside the concept of electric-cars being energized just by riding or standing on the road itself, this will be a possible future. and BillK is right, this will probably be adopted much faster by private homes and businesses, before the government takes any real interest. (I also think the glass should be nanocoated, what still increases the price per mile currently) just my 2 cents.

  • NathronIstar says:

    I remember reading about this when it first started and thinking it was a great idea. They should start with smaller areas such as driveways or perhaps parking lots. Perhaps a condo type community could do all of their little roads like this. Once a few things like that happen it will not take long for larger roads and freeways to follow.

  • NathronIstar says:

    I remember reading about this when it first started and thinking it was a great idea. They should start with smaller areas such as driveways or perhaps parking lots. Perhaps a condo type community could do all of their little roads like this. Once a few things like that happen it will not take long for larger roads and freeways to follow.

  • jacques hughes says:

    I think they’re maybe missing a trick here. If not only solar energy, but kinetic energy from the traffic could be collected, it’d definitely be a winner. Possibly even self-regulating temperature-wise for when it snows? Imagine a road powered by traffic that can also power the traffic on it…

  • jacques hughes says:

    I think they’re maybe missing a trick here. If not only solar energy, but kinetic energy from the traffic could be collected, it’d definitely be a winner. Possibly even self-regulating temperature-wise for when it snows? Imagine a road powered by traffic that can also power the traffic on it…

  • Hulk says:

    Now just add cars that are powered by induction power , given by the road !

  • Hulk says:

    Now just add cars that are powered by induction power , given by the road !

  • Terrence says:

    Have you ever heard of “transparent concrete”, they do not have to use glass by itself, there are various materials that are as durable as asphalt or concrete roads that while are not as efficient as glass alone can permit enough light through them to make it worth the effort.

  • Terrence says:

    Have you ever heard of “transparent concrete”, they do not have to use glass by itself, there are various materials that are as durable as asphalt or concrete roads that while are not as efficient as glass alone can permit enough light through them to make it worth the effort.

  • Hulk says:

    quote
    “concept of electric-cars being energized just by riding or standing on the road itself”

    Sorry was too hasty in replying , but that’s exacly what i meant. With suficient detection by the road itself of where the car is , and how fast it is driving , it can even “turn on” the road only for a second when the car is going to pass over it.

  • Hulk says:

    quote
    “concept of electric-cars being energized just by riding or standing on the road itself”

    Sorry was too hasty in replying , but that’s exacly what i meant. With suficient detection by the road itself of where the car is , and how fast it is driving , it can even “turn on” the road only for a second when the car is going to pass over it.

  • Lance says:

    Instead of glass, it might be feasible to pave over the panels using transparent pavement. Shell now makes a transparent non-asphalt binder (Floraphalte TM) that is comparable to asphalt in price and durability; this could be mixed with recycled clear glass cullet for aggregate.

  • Lance says:

    Instead of glass, it might be feasible to pave over the panels using transparent pavement. Shell now makes a transparent non-asphalt binder (Floraphalte TM) that is comparable to asphalt in price and durability; this could be mixed with recycled clear glass cullet for aggregate.

  • Ivan Malagurski says:

    Very cool idea…I like the solar driveway idea as the first testing ground…hope they solve all the technical and financial challenges….
    Ivan Malagurski

  • Ivan Malagurski says:

    Very cool idea…I like the solar driveway idea as the first testing ground…hope they solve all the technical and financial challenges….
    Ivan Malagurski

  • cmadler says:

    One obvious issue: if the project has a 22-year payback time, and has to be rebuilt after 20 years, it will never cover its costs. Both of those seem to be optimistic, so it may lose even more money than those numbers suggest.

    • Brad Williams says:

      Assuming you tear up existing pavement to install the solar roadway, it’s true it will never cover its cost (unless we count the benefit of reduced reliance on nonrenewable fossil fuel). Then again, we know our current highways will never generate enough electricity to finance their construction.

  • cmadler says:

    One obvious issue: if the project has a 22-year payback time, and has to be rebuilt after 20 years, it will never cover its costs. Both of those seem to be optimistic, so it may lose even more money than those numbers suggest.

    • Brad Williams says:

      Assuming you tear up existing pavement to install the solar roadway, it’s true it will never cover its cost (unless we count the benefit of reduced reliance on nonrenewable fossil fuel). Then again, we know our current highways will never generate enough electricity to finance their construction.

  • Joey1058 says:

    About the ONLY way this can be proven as a viable tech is to install neighborhood roads in new subdivision construction. Some subdivisions have a city-run utility building that houses local water pumps, natural gas leads, or whatever. Why not house the storage batteries there as well? As new road construction is needed, then panels can be installed as main pavement up to the required construction. The way this is sounding, we will replace the entire interstate system with a bill in Congress. I’d like to see taxes pay for THAT!

  • Joey1058 says:

    About the ONLY way this can be proven as a viable tech is to install neighborhood roads in new subdivision construction. Some subdivisions have a city-run utility building that houses local water pumps, natural gas leads, or whatever. Why not house the storage batteries there as well? As new road construction is needed, then panels can be installed as main pavement up to the required construction. The way this is sounding, we will replace the entire interstate system with a bill in Congress. I’d like to see taxes pay for THAT!

  • Concrete Polishing says:

    Informative videos…I liked the site as well the comments…good job congratulations….

  • Marble Floor Repair Boca Raton says:

    The Solar Roadways project is interesting because Brusaw sees it as solving so many different problems all in the same structure.

  • Ariesll2003 says:

    If solar highways, why not solar sidewalks to heat houses

  • drivewaysandpavingservices says:

    Sounds like such a great idea. It is after all energy that is otherwise wasted!

  • Carpet Cleaning Boca Raton says:

    Good an very informative post. I will come back to your blog regullary.

  • Upholstery Cleaning Boca Raton says:

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  • Upholstery Cleaning Boca Raton says:

    Interesting blog. It would be great if you can provide more details about it. Thanks a load!

  • Emond-annette says:

    Well maybe it could be used in parking lots, and generate the power required to run huge shopping malls , government buildings, schools, hospitals, airports, etc etc etc. I understand the cost of building highways may be somewhat prohibitive at this time, but there are numerous other possible applications for this seriously ingenious application!

  • annonymz says:

    12′ by 12′ it says means 12 inch or 12 foot???

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